Great War reviews


‘Great War’: Long Ago but Not So Far Away

November 8, 1996 | Howard Rosenberg

The guns of November roar Sunday.

“The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century” is as elegant and intoxicating as any documentary to appear on television, and also as ghastly–eight hours of emotional thunderbolts powerful enough to convert possibly the most gung-ho hawk to pacifism.

Granted four consecutive evenings on PBS, this memorial to World War I–and its 9 million dead and millions more physically and emotionally wounded–may wring you like a rag.

Distinguishing “The Great War” are not only its aching sadness, haunting apparitions, stunning looks and spectacular storytelling, but also the transcendence it gives the 1914-18 conflict by explaining its origins and lasting effects.

So lasting, in fact, that deep footprints from “The Great War” can be traced across the century, closing gaps separating generations. As it notes, the harsh peace imposed on defeated Germany by the allies after World War I is what nourished the chaos and widespread discontent that Adolf Hitler exploited in his rise to power. The last days of World War I, notes this documentary, were “the first days of Adolf Hitler’s crusade.”

It was World War I, also, that saw the century’s first recorded genocide, a slaughter of up to a million Armenians by Turks who marched entire families to doom like Jews to gassings, one set of murderers possibly influencing another. “Who remembers the Armenian massacre today?” Hitler is reported to have commented to his inner circle prior to implementing his own “final solution.”

It was World War I, too, that toppled Russia’s rotted Tsarist monarchy, creating a vacuum ultimately filled by a Soviet regime that would help define global politics through most of the century.

Just as ethnic violence has bloodied the Balkans in the 1990s, so was it Sarajevo, then the center of the region’s Slavic resistance to Austrian dominance, where in 1914 the match was struck that lit the bonfire that charred much of Europe eight decades ago. The catalyst was the murder of visiting Austrian heir Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, shots that mobilized opposing cliques of European powers tightly knotted by alliances.

“In a flash, the whole continent was going to be at war,” observes Salome Jens, whose ritzy narration superbly complements “The Great War,” a KCET-BBC co-production whose executive producer is Blaine Baggett, whose chief consultant is Cambridge historian Jay Winter and whose primary producer is Carl Byker.

This was a war that permeated all strands of society, a fact depicted here through photos, amazing vintage footage, creative new visuals that have cinematic flair, commentary by Winter and other scholars, and memoirs, letters and diaries beautifully voiced by dozens of prominent actors. Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson are just a few of the readers.

It was also a war that straddled eras, with one foot in the 20th century and a couple of toes in the 19th–witness the anomaly of the archaic cavalry uniforms worn by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals while riding in automobiles.

You very much have here the sense of regimes acting out of antique honor against their own national interests. And of stout, gaudily medaled, incompetent, strutting old fools with thick white mustaches making awful decisions that sacrifice wave after wave of young men whose idealism would swiftly vanish under “the ghastly glimmering of the guns” described by British soldier-poet Wilfred Owen.

‘The Great War” delivers titanic clashes–Germans throwing their Big Bertha super guns, for example, against overmatched Belgium’s reputedly impregnable fort at Liege. And suicidal charges against the machine gun, with an Irish gunner recalling his “great sense of power and pleasure” in mowing down advancing Germans.

The body counts throughout are horrifying, one battle killing 40,000 French troops in four days. A massive but under-equipped and ineptly led Russian army is annihilated at Tannenberg in East Prussia. And German casualties are staggering, 400,000 French go down and a small British army is nearly erased in a five-month stretch of trench warfare that ends in stalemate.

There was the occasional lapse in savagery. A “last twitch of the 19th century” is one historian’s label for the “sounds of singing [that] drifted across no-man’s land” during an unofficial Christmas truce that found German and British troops filling the night with carols from their opposing trenches. In a few instances, tiny groups of enemies used this mini-armistice to meet and chat. “He seemed a very decent fellow,” a British officer wrote about a German counterpart. Afterward, the war was on again.


On the Front With PBS

The Great War’ takes a more nuanced look at World War I, a story not just of combat and politics but of ordinary people who helped shape our century.

November 10, 1996 | Judith Michaelson 

The timing is fitting. Monday is Veterans Day–what used to be Armistice Day, commemorating Nov. 11, 1918, when guns ceased firing in the international conflict. Armistice lasted but a generation. World War I, which had begun in 1914, segued into World War II, and the series’ theme is contained in the full title–“The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century.”

Using a metaphor akin to his last PBS series, “The Astronomers” (1991), Baggett likens the First World War to the “big bang [of] the most violent century in recorded history.”

Unlike separate CBS and BBC series in the ’60s, which dealt with the military and political history of the conflict, “Great War” has a more layered take. It focuses on social and cultural history and on people–artists and poets, many of them soldiers; women whose faces and hands turned so yellow from working in Britain’s munitions factories they were called “canaries”; ordinary folk who would do a fictional miniseries proud. The overarching events are also here–the Armenian genocide by Turks, the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, the Russian Revolution.

In the darkened studio, archival footage of battle and of a tank stuck high in midair moves across a 10-foot-by-12-foot screen, mingled with contemporary shots–puddles of yellow mud, of rain hitting dead leaves–as well as paintings and still-photo close-ups of tense, weary faces.

“This is where it’s all coming together,” Baggett says. (Then KCET’s director of public affairs and feature documentaries, he became vice president for program development, scheduling and acquisition in September.) “We’ve gone from rough cuts where we had put our own voices in it, and we’ve started to edit. Instead of my voice, it might be Jeremy Irons. The actual scoring of the music is done here. . . . It’s now getting very, very close to precisely what you’ll see on the air.

“This is the heart of the series. Episode 4. ‘Slaughter.’ And this is what the war is about–how people are being basically wasted. . . . We’re 46 to 47 minutes into it. We’ve gone through the two big battles. One by the French at Verdun. One by the British–the Somme. [Generals] think they’ve gotten it right and know how to fight the battles. Instead of new tactics, they go ahead and use old tactics again in the middle of the rain. And half a million people are casualties as a result. At Passchendaele . . . in Belgium.”

As tape of “War’s” sobering images continues to unwind, narrator Salome Jens points out that 1917 was “the wettest summer and autumn in years. Airplanes could not fly. Tanks could not move. And soldiers–with their hopes for victory–drowned in mud.” Her voice is a somber resonant alto.

Then comes historian Jay Winter, co-writer with Baggett of the series and its companion book. Winter, an American who has spent most of his adult life teaching at Cambridge, stares straight into the camera, his understated tone adding poignancy to the words: “Men caught in the mud could be found a day or two later, lower down and with their minds gone.”

Baggett and producer-director Isaac Mizrahi had already decided to have the sound of heavy rain placed over Winter’s words. The haunting, melodic strains of composer Mason Daring’s music, which arrived earlier in the week, are put in as well.

“Nice,” Mizrahi says.

An unseen Irons gives voice to Siegfried Sassoon, who hunted foxes before fighting Germans and becoming one of Britain’s best-known poets: “Mud and rain and wretchedness and blood, Why should jolly soldier-boys complain? God made these before the roofless Flood–Mud and rain.”

Rupert Graves speaks as Paul Nash, an artist who had been sent to the front, painted war’s harsh colors and described what he saw: “The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.”

“Don’t you wish we still wrote like that?” Baggett whispers.

As the episode fades, he decides that the music will end a beat or two ahead of the final cut of a cemetery.

“I know you don’t like silence,” Baggett tells Mizrahi, who laughingly agrees, “but . . .” So silence it is.

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